If someone could read your heart, what would it say? If God’s words for you were etched upon your beating heart, what would a spiritual CT scan reveal? In this Lenten season of introspection, take a moment to scan within and see what God’s hand has written within you. (SILENCE)
Now to the heart of the matter: Faith is a matter of the heart. The prophet Jeremiah did not direct the Jews exiled in Babylon to affirm certain statements about God. Neither did the rabbi Jesus require his followers to believe particular concepts about the Divine. They cared more about people’s behaviors than their beliefs. Many people today find it hard to believe that Christianity is not about what you believe because relatively recent versions of Christianity (in the last 400 years particularly) have stressed doctrine almost exclusively.[i]
From the book of Jeremiah we heard today that God’s new covenant would be written upon human hearts so that everyone would know God. Knowing God is different from knowing ABOUT God. In other words, according to Jeremiah, relationship trumps dogma. Jeremiah preached the possibility that within each of us exists a renewable capacity to sense what is sacred and ultimate. God’s dream for humanity is not for religious authorities to teach people specialized information about God--but for people to experience God. Hear Jer. 31: 33-34 again: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.”
Likewise, Jesus never catechized his disciples about what they should profess about God or about himself. Not once did Jesus say, “You must believe this or that.” Certainly Jesus and his followers operated within a certain worldview, so they probably took for granted beliefs pervasive within that culture. But Jesus never sought to impose a particular worldview on others. Instead, Jesus invited people to “follow him” on a path that, he often said cryptically, was like dying and being born again.
Jeremiah said God’s fullest intentions cannot be engraved in cold stone but must be written upon beating hearts. Jesus said God’s way cannot be known through philosophical assertions but must be composed in the hearts of faithful ones as they die to self-interest in order to live in union with God and others. The human heart is at the heart of faith.
To emphasize the role of the “heart” in Christian faith is not to speak of the heart as the seat of emotion, is not to say that Christianity is unrestrained emotionalism, that Christian theology is anti-intellectual, or that Christian moral and social action hinge upon doing what feels right. Rather, in the biblical world the heart represented one’s full selfhood—and that included the mind.
But it’s a common mistake to reduce the Christian faith to a set of beliefs. Again, Christian faith is a way to live. As Marcus Borg explains so well in his book The Heart of Christianity, only since the era of the Enlightenment have Christians understood their faith to be a set of a truth claims about God and Jesus, claims to which they must intellectually assent—however illogical the propositions. In fact, when biblical literalists encounter strong evidence that some of their truth claims are unsupportable, they argue all the more that, for instance, the earth is a mere 6,000 years old, and they do so with the conviction that they are defending Christianity itself, as if faith requires adherents to deny reason.
Meanwhile, liberal Christians too often stay in their heads, approaching God theoretically, tepidly.
Liberals and conservatives alike need to be reminded that for most of its existence, Christian faith has engaged followers in a “radical trust” of God’s compassion and a deeply relational commitment to the loving ways of Jesus and the community of Christ. Even the Latin word credo, from which we get the word “creed,” though translated “believe,” is not about agreeing to literal-factual truths; instead it means “I give my heart to” (Borg 39-40). “Most simply,” says Borg, “’to believe’ [originally] meant ‘to love’” (40). In the Bible, the word “heart” is usually a metaphor for the spiritual center of the self”, a hope and trust at the “foundation of an entire way of life and vision of the world” (Christopher Grasso qtd. in Still by Lauren Winner, p. 169).
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,” the Psalmist prayed. “God writes God’s law of love upon our hearts,” Jeremiah preached. “You shall love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus reminded his disciples. Although we may want Christianity to be a matter of believing the right things, in fact it is a matter of the heart.
In Lauren Winner’s most recent memoir, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, she shares the story of Julian, a friend recalling her childhood preparations for confirmation. “A few days before the confirmation service, [12-year-old] Julian told her father—the pastor of the church—that she wasn’t sure she could go through with it. She didn’t know that she really believed everything she was supposed to believe, and she didn’t know that she should proclaim in front of the church that she was ready to believe it forever. 'What you promise when you are confirmed,’ said Julian’s father, 'is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.'”
Our book study on Tuesday evenings is part of the Church’s commitment to remain conversant with the biblical story we will continue to wrestle with forever. We will continue to consult ancient words on the pages of our Bibles because we value not only the unique revelations of God in our own individual hearts and lives—but also respect revelations passed down to us through the centuries. As George has been teaching on Tuesday nights, this process of “listening to scripture” first involves an attempt to understand what the original communities that wrote biblical stories were trying to say in their day. Then we try to put the words of Jeremiah or Jesus, for instance, in conversation with contemporary thought and personal experience. In this way we learn the law of love not only from our subjective personal experiences but also from others’ reflections on their experiences. When we merge these sources of revelation together in the communal processes of congregational life, we benefit further from the collective wisdom of our faith community. As a community of faith we help one another interpret the Bible, the world, and the human heart. Without the counterbalancing conversations with the ancient world (through the Bible) and the current world (though our community), the human heart might not be completely trustworthy. For you who have asked if biblical study is really worth the time it takes to extract meaning, I would say that the law written on the human heart can often be amplified or corrected in conversation by the law written on the ancient scrolls. I do not say the Bible trumps the human heart; but the voices in the Bible and within modern communities of faith are good conversation partners as we read the law of love, the ultimate law we should obey. Responsible Bible study leads us to love.
In the spirit of reading the Bible responsibly, let me briefly detour one moment to caution against from making one common mistake in interpreting Hebrew Bible scriptures. Many Christians read today’s Jeremiah text as evidence of the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. They think, for instance, that Jeremiah was predicting God would create the new covenant of love through Jesus, and that Jesus would thus invalidate or supersede the covenants God made with the Jews. Such an interpretive practice of Christianizing Jewish writings by reading them “backwards” with a Christian lens implicitly invalidates the original meanings of Jewish scripture. Although the communities that later wrote about Jesus would, centuries later, adapt Jeremiah’s metaphor to describe a new covenant in Jesus’s blood, Jeremiah did not predict the life or death of Jesus. Furthermore, we can never forget that Jesus was a Jew. He did not see himself as creating a new religion to replace Judaism. Unfortunately, Christian interpreters have made too much of Jesus’ in-house arguments with his fellow Jews and have misunderstood the reforming Jesus movement as a replacement and repudiation of Judaism. But the early Christians were Jews, and early Christianity developed alongside rabbinical Judaism which was being born about the same time. To conclude that Judaism is based in legalism while Christianity is based on grace is to ignore the Bible itself. Here in Jeremiah we see within the Jewish tradition the God of grace who gives us second chances, the God of grace who forgives and forgives, the God of grace who covenants with us in love. It is simplistic and insulting to Jews to say that the God of the Hebrew Bible is an angry God while the God of the Christian scriptures is a loving God.
We return to the Jeremiah lection to appreciate the Judeo-Christian concept of forgiveness, as it opens the heart to the law of love. If we are to understand the new covenant, if God’s love is to be legible in our hearts and in our lives, we must experience forgiveness: that is, we must be able accept forgiveness and offer forgiveness. Forgiveness is the key to reading the law God writes on our hearts. The Hebrew people freed from Egyptian bondage broke the covenant they’d made with the God who liberated them. Yet God forgave. (Jeremiah 31:32-34). Their covenant was no longer a conditional contract. It was amended to become the law of love that forgives and forgives. What an evolutionary leap in human ethics and spirituality!
In this Lenten season we return to a bedrock experience of forgiveness. Lent is traditionally a time for confessing sins and receiving pardon. Progressive Christians may rightly resist wallowing in our unworthiness. The word “sin” may not seem the most helpful descriptor for societal problems and our own deep needs. Still, we must face honestly the human dilemma and our personal limitations. Christian spirituality leads us to practice the giving and receiving of forgiveness that is readily ours through the covenant of Love.
Look back on the first page of your worship bulletin to view again that copy of Chagall’s painting of “Jeremiah” tenderly hugging the Torah scroll to his heart as if to internalize its law of love. What messages, biblical or otherwise, have you internalized? So many cultural messages are harmful: We’re told that African American young men wearing hoodies are dangerous, that women are inferior, that wealth is the ultimate value, that violence must be met with violence. It is hard NOT to internalize some of those messages. But perhaps God has written another message. Look again within. Is God’s unconditional loving forgiveness written on your heart? I can’t imagine anything more important for us to take into our being. Our lives can be completely changed by simply taking that truth to heart.
We have known love most truly when we have been forgiven—and when we have forgiven ourselves and others. We have seen this gracious love most purely as Jesus forgave from the cross. The law of love opens us up to the possibilities of newness. Forgiveness is how God re-births us. Forgiveness is the way the old self dies and the new self springs up. Forgiveness is the language of love in the covenant written upon our hearts.
I opened the sermon by asking you to imagine what is written on your own heart.
I think both Jesus and Jeremiah would find the word “love” written there. God’s covenant with us is a promise of love and an expectation of love for others, a love so deep that it keeps on forgiving, a covenant so just that all have access to it, a covenant so generous it continues even when one party breaks the agreement. In modern shorthand, God “hearts” us. The human heart IS both God’s medium and message.
[i] I found the comments posted in response to this article telling. Both atheists and conservative Christians were unable to hear John Gray’s point (and mine) that religions are “about how we live and not what we believe.” Those who attack Christianity are really attacking a straw man: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14944470